Child Deaths from Measles and Diarrhea Reduced by Vitamin Supplements
Refuting recent controversies about vitamin A supplement programs for children in developing countries, a new study by researchers at Cochrane finds that vitamin A supplements clearly lower the death toll from childhood measles and diarrhea
Diets deficient in vitamin A are common in many countries with low and middle-range per capital income levels. The effects of deficiency can include various impairments of physical function and increased vulnerability to blindness, infections, and early death. The World Health Organization (WHO) promotes the use of A supplementation and children.
The Cochrane study reviewed 43 trials with a total of 215,633 children aged between six months and five years. With the exception of one trial, all those reviewed administered the WHO-recommended standard dose capsules. The overall result was a reduction in the risk of death from any cause of 24% for the vitamin recipients when compared to either placebos or normal medical treatment without vitamin A. Expanded to a global scale, this amounts to saving almost a million vitamin A-deficient children’s lives in a year.
This review indicates that vitamin A supplement programs in developing countries may owe much of their live-saving effect to lowering the rates of diarrhea and measles. “Giving vitamin A is associated with a reduction in the incidence of diarrhea and measles, as well as the number of child deaths due to these diseases,” said Zulfiqar Bhutta, Chairman of the Division of Women and Child Health at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, who was senior reviewer on the Cochrane project. “However, the effects of supplementation on disease pathways are not well understood, so this could be a focus for further studies.”
A strong recommendation for continuing vitamin A supplement programs for children up to 5 years of age was issued by the Cochrane researchers. They acknowledge that such programs are not a permanent or complete solution to the vitamin A-poor diets in many countries. “Fortification, dietary diversification, food distribution programs and horticultural developments such as home gardening and bio-fortification may provide more permanent relief,” Dr. Bhutta said. “For example, vitamin A content could be increased in staples such as rice or growers may aim to promote use of foods such as orange sweet potato.”
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